Have we been missing a major poet while we celebrated the greatest dramatist and the most influential fiction writer of the second half of the twentieth century?
The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, Edited by Seán Lawlor and John Pilling. Grove Press, 528p, $35.
By Robert Scanlan
A new and imposing volume is being added to the Beckett canon. Grove Press’s The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett is clearly intended to challenge received ideas about the writer and his place in literary history. Have we been missing a major poet while we celebrated the greatest dramatist and the most influential fiction writer of the second half of the twentieth century?
We now have a handy basis for debating the question, and deciding on an answer.
Most American readers and theatregoers don’t think of Beckett as a poet. His game-changing innovations as a playwright and novelist dominate any public consciousness of him. His reputation, his fame, his influence and his Nobel Prize all rest firmly on his full-length plays for the stage — Waiting for Godot (1953), Endgame (1956), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961) — and his output as a novelist — chiefly the great “trilogy” he poured out in French immediately after World War II. Those three novels, Molloy, Malone meurt, and L’Innommable led French critics, and the young continental authors who followed Beckett’s lead, to mark this revolution in the writing of fiction by calling the genre it initiated Le Nouveau Roman. Nothing has been the same in those realms since “Beckett” happened in mid-century.
Poetry didn’t come into the picture. The blossoming public “Beckett Phenomenon” that swept the globe in the 1950s and 1960s was rightly focused on prose fiction and the theatre. Even lifelong Beckettomanes like myself, as we collected his complete works in French (the tiny Éditions de Minuit volumes) and in English (John Calder and Faber & Faber in Great Britain, Grove Press in America) accumulated dozens of volumes of prose and of drama, but only, until 1978, a single sample of what many of us dismissed as difficult, esoteric, incidental, rebarbative, and juvenile poetry. On my Beckett bookshelf, for instance,there is that slimmest of slim volumes with the self-effacing title Poems in English — which I last paid serious attention to in the early 1970s — and one other (of which I’ll speak in a minute) among dozens and dozens of far more important volumes of Beckett’s work. The thrill of my literary and theatrical lifetime was the steady appearance of yet more new plays, yet more new prose texts, unstintingly until Beckett’s death in 1989. Forty full years of astonishing creativity. But the 1961 Grove Press Poems in English is still symptomatic in its smallness and paucity. That neglected volume was so astringent, so spare, so “out of date” (it represented the efforts of a young neophyte from the early 1930s, well before he became “Beckett”) that its largely bare pages (it contains only 20 poems, stretched into a 64-page booklet — a characteristic marketing move of the late Barney Rosset’s) simply confirmed the impression that poetry was not an important part of Beckett’s prodigiously productive writing life.
This changed significantly when John Calder, Beckett’s English publisher and friend, in 1977, published an expanded edition of Beckett’s poetry which he called Collected Poems in English and French. Grove Press (i.e. Barney Rosset) printed its version of the same collection in 1978. This became the second of my only two volumes of Beckett poetry. This volume was significant. It printed 65 poems and translations, compared to the previous volume’s spare 20. I believe Calder’s collection (in the preparation of which Beckett was closely involved) was “occasioned” (as some people say) by Professor Lawrence Harvey’s magisterial study of the earlier Poems in English.
Harvey’s decidedly academic book, Samuel Beckett, Poet and Critic, appeared in 1970, and it was in its time one of the best and best researched books on Beckett in existence. For one thing, it supplied biographical materials that had never before surfaced. And the earliest poems were largely incomprehensible without these personal details, which Beckett over ten years of deepening friendship with Harvey, confided to him and tied explicitly, in conversation, to poem after poem. Harvey, between the publication of the 1961 Poems in English and the appearance of his own book in 1970, accumulated the single richest cache of Beckett biographical lore then in existence — including many unpublished Beckett manuscripts, handed over to him by Beckett (and now at Dartmouth, where Harvey was a Professor of Comparative Literature). The writer clearly trusted the critic deeply. Harvey’s book is still a major study, and one that has been extensively mined and quoted in the large explanatory apparatus of the volume now under review. Beckett himself, it seems clear to me, learned important things about himself from Harvey, and he evidently grew re-attached to his own private poetry; the critic “validated” much that would have remained buried and obscure, even in Beckett’s own mind.
This new climate of “access” to Beckett’s poetry led pretty clearly to the Calder collection. By this time, two other important Beckett scholars — Jim Knowlson and John Fletcher — had become Beckett confidants and added their skills and detailed knowledge of Beckett to the redaction of his poetry. Their notes in Calder’s volume remain invaluable. Beckett was completely involved in the 1977 volume. But here is the important point: it was Beckett and not his friends and editors who decided what should be reprinted and what should not. There were many Beckett poems and translations passed over in culling what was printed. That edition explicitly stated that ” there are other translations made during the thirties with which Mr. Beckett is unsatisfied… he is not willing to see them reissued in book form.”
Pace, Sam. They are being re-issued in book form now.
The new Collected Poems is a massive 500-page tome. It prints about 200 poems, more than tripling the number Beckett passed by his stringent standards. Some, to be fair, were written after 1977 and published in various obscure journals in Beckett’s lifetime, but still we are way out there in moving large amounts of material from the “not-cleared-for-publication” stack into the “published” Beckett. In addition, a daunting (and masterful) critical apparatus by John Pilling and the late Seán Lawlor fills half the new volume. That’s 245 pages of notes, variants and explanatory circumstantial information: all of it crucially important in “accessing” the difficult poems The dimensions of this doorstop of a book are staggering, and the obvious proposition the volume represents is that Beckett’s stature as a poet needs to be reconsidered and upgraded in the light of this new presentation of a lifetime of quiet but persistent output. This challenge should probably be accepted and evaluated thoroughly, and with patience and caution. It will take time.
Fintan O’Toole, on the occasion of last spring’s sudden emergence in print of a hitherto unpublished short story (Echo’s Bones, which I reviewed in June for Arts Fuse, and which O’Toole reviewed in a much more extensive piece yet to be published by the New York Review of Books) wrote an editorial in the Irish Times expressing the hope that Beckett would not become the Tupac of literary publishing. The allusion is to the seemingly never-ending market in “new” posthumous releases of contrived re-mixes concocted from buried archival recordings of the dead rap artist — an obviously lucrative and exploitative industry of questionable artistic integrity and validity. The publication of Echo’s Bones was a good time to express this fear. The present Collected Poems is a much more substantial and defensible enterprise. The Grove Press edition lags behind the English edition of Faber and Faber by a couple of years. I have no idea why this pattern was established, but it has prevailed in Beckett publishing throughout his career.
Now a word about the poems themselves. It’s all here, and more.
The early stuff was hatched in pain, and by pain. It was also forcibly “Modernist” and erudite, in an aggressive and embarrassingly pedantic way. But almost all of the pre-war poetry was linked to catastrophic events in Beckett’s early manhood. The disease and death of Peggy Sinclair, who contracted and died from tuberculosis (“my darling’s red sputum”) in her and Sam’s youth appalled the incipient writer, and devastated his emotional world. His father’s awful heart attacks and death just weeks after Peggy’s death sent Beckett into a decade-long tailspin, and the painfully contorted and opaque early poetry follows the spoor of this unbearable psychic pain and disorientation. It is not lyrical by any conventional means. It is so tortured and hemmed in that it seems anti-poetry, dry and dessicated, harsh and bilious, impacted and unwell.
When birds of prey devour their kill, they produce and cough up what are called “castings”: pellets of indigestible fur and bones, sinew and claws, beak fragments, tiny teeth, gristle and feathers — compacted into the equivalent of a cat’s furballs, which they regularly regurgitate. This is the stuff that, literally, “catches in their craw,” what cannot go down and be digested. The image perfectly captures the stunted and often rebarbative nature of Beckett’s poetic exuviae, as he called them himself. Ornithologists are avid in collecting castings, and minutely dissecting, sorting, and analyzing their irreducible contents. They learn from these autopsy-like operations not only what the birds ate, and where, but how they hunt, what they seek, where they roam, how they live. The enormous critical apparatus by John Pilling and the late Seán Lawlor does this painstaking analytical work exhaustively on every poem in the collection. Half this large book is a crutch for the other half, and the apparatus is indispensable. But it feels like an autopsy.
Harvey, back in the 1960s, was the first to conduct such inquiries, and they were academic labors of love. But his acutely sensitive explications de texte(s) — hard to rival or duplicate — begged the question even then of whether the poetry stands on its own. Tellingly, Harvey found one poem in particular — Cascando — to be the masterpiece of the first Poems in English. It is clearly the poem he most liked, but why? It strikes me as highly uncharacteristic of the Beckett poetic style. It is all-too easy to like this flat-out lyrical love poem. It contains the following highly “accessible,” singing lines
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love
But how nineteenth-century it is! Really? It could be Leopardi! It stands out for its lyrical effusiveness, its weltschmerz, and it clearly ambushed Harvey’s acute and wide-ranging poetic sensibility. He apparently did not know that Beckett wrote it under the immediate spell of a new love interest. Cambridge’s own Molly Adams, or Mary Manning Howe as she was then known, one of the original founders of The Poets’ Theatre, introduced Beckett to her friend Betty Stockton Farley and Betty and Sam had a passionate fling. That got his mind off Peggy. It also ignited a new mood, a new and immediately practical lyrical strain. But Betty was done after a brief nine days. Sam was left hopelessly “in love,” in a very old-fashioned (and timeless) way. Does the gossip kill the poem? I personally prefer the elegant poems Beckett wrote much later, much more dispassionately in French. My favorite is always in my mind:
je suis ce cours de sable qui glisse
entre le galet et la dune
la pluie d’été pleut sur ma vie
sur moi ma vie qui me fuit me poursuit
et finira le jour de son commencement
cher instant je te vois
dand ce rideau de brume qui recule
où je n’aurai plus à fouler ces longs seuils mouvants
et vivrai le temps d’une porte
qui s’ouvre et se referme
Since Beckett translated this poem himself into English, it is included in the Grove Press volume (others in French alone, are not):
my way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end
my peace is there in the receding mist
when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds
and live the space of a door
that opens and shuts
I find Beckett a stronger poet in French than in English. His “Englished” French poems are also better (to my sensibility) than his poems written originally in English, which tend to be stilted, overly-erudite, contrived to be gnomic, in many cases capsized by scholarly allusions to Dante, to Proust, to Joyce, to Provençal Troubadour poets, to the Bible, to arcane passages in the Meditations of René Descartes. Beckett, as a graduate student at Trinity College, Dublin, encountered the same literary curriculum that animated T.S. Eliot at Harvard and Ezra Pound at Hamilton College (and later at U. Penn). Beckett’s “Pre-War” poems (mostly written in the 1930s) follow Modernist patterns and practices that were already decades old, and wearing out.
Much of Beckett’s lifetime poetic output is translation, and much of that undertaken in desperation and for money. What he chose to preserve of this work is clearly what he collaborated in publishing in 1977. For the rest, the available market dictated the chosen poems. There are many French poems by sixteen French poets, one Italian poem by Eugenio Montale, and a whole anthology of Mexican Poetry compiled by Octavio Paz in 1958. This trench labor differs enormously from Beckett’s private poetic efforts. It also varies widely in importance and in accomplishment. Beckett thought highly of most of the French poets he translated, but he thought Paz’ selections were pretty crumby and the whole enterprise a chore. Thus this part of the Collected Poems is an intrusively mixed bag — of interest, no doubt, but of dubious worth in assessing Beckett or his development.
By far the most important of the translations in the volume is Beckett’s strikingly good rendition of Arthur Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre, one of the single most important poems of the whole Symboliste movement. But this poem was written in 1871. It’s good to have a great English version of this, but what does it have to do with Beckett’s half of the twentieth century? Equally distinguished for similar but limiting reasons (it is a good version of an enormously important poem) is Beckett’s rendition of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Zone.
But only with what are called “Later Poems” (and there are only about 20 pages of these) do we return to “authentic” Beckett, and by this time his toying with words is minimalist and desultory in the extreme… these are café napkin jottings, scraps of verse on scraps of paper… traces of a lifelong incessant “wordshed.” During these same closing years Beckett was writing far more important and accomplished prose, pushing ever-outwards at the edge of creativity and leaving us fertile leads for our own future work. Company, Mal vu mal dit (Ill Seen Ill Said), Worstward Ho! and Ceiling were and remain enormously important works. And why is neither (equally important) not collected with the poems? It picks up and elaborates the last couplet of the poem I quote in its entirety above. What makes it prose in the prose anthologies? It’s his best “late” poem. But all of Beckett’s magisterial prose is also music, so where does the genre distinction really exist? What is corralled in this new volume is stuff Beckett lineated himself. Is that what makes it “Poetry”?
The late poems were always trivial in comparison to the prose, perhaps as trivial as Beckett always insisted they were. I knew Beckett during his last nine years. We went over Company together, in French and in English, in careful detail (I was working with Frederick Neumann of Mabou Mines at the time, on dramatizing the text). He handed me a pre-publication copy of Mal vu mal dit, and we discussed it. Years later he handed me a copy of the typescript of Stirrings Still a few months before he died, and asked me to have David Warrilow (who was himself dying) read it aloud at the launch of the Barney Rosset edition of the text, an event the Poets’ Theatre held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Beckett’s last birthday. Beckett told me about What Is The Word, stating that he wrote it after hearing that Joe Chaikin had had a stroke, and could speak only with great difficulty. Beckett later came to see this halting, sympathetic poem as the perfect “final word” on his own enormous career, and it is presented in this volume as the last thing Beckett wrote before he died. This in accord to Beckett’s penciled “save for end” on the holograph. I hate to mar the perfection of such a carefully constructed period, but it wasn’t the last thing he wrote. But let this definitive volume of The Collected Poems end on that perfect note. What could be more “poetical,” or more crafted and achevé?
I can’t help but remember that the Moran section of Molloy begins “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.” But it ends a hundred some-odd artful pages later with the artist’s confession: “I went into the house and wrote, it is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”
Robert Scanlan has taught at Harvard for 25 years. He recently revived the Poets’ Theatre, serving as the organization’s President of the Board and Artistic Director. His book Principles of Dramaturgy is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.